Recently, the New York Times ran the best of dozens of stories about how President Obama will behave in the last quarter of his eight years in office. Veteran political reporters Peter Baker and Michael Shear wrote:
"As the President's advisers map out the next two years, they have focused on three broad categories: agenda items he can advance without Congress, legislation that might emerge from a newfound spirit of compromise with Republicans, and issues that Mr. Obama can promote even without hope of passage as a way to frame the party's core beliefs heading into 2016."
Spinning this message with his usual pungency, long-time adviser David Axelrod declared: "What he can't do and won't do is put his feet up on the desk and cross days off the calendar."
The world is unlikely to leave the President any space for malingering, and his most vehement congressional critics are likely to attack him with such fervor that the faint path toward legislative compromise vanishes. Given these harsh realities, what the President can and should do to build an affirmative legacy is to accomplish well-organized executive actions that would protect public health, ensure the safety of workers and consumers, and preserve the environment.
His harshest congressional critics are only marginally relevant to such an initiative. They'll keep screeching about the outrage of the Obama Imperial Presidency, and may even get their act together to pass appropriations riders to kill executive actions they intensely dislike. With his veto pen at the ready, though, the President has the power to drive right through such obstacles, earning applause from every quarter except the regulated industries that already treat him with disdain.
The Center for Progressive Reform released a comprehensive new report that sets out an affirmative agenda of the 13 essential regulatory actions the Obama Administration could and should accomplish with the active participation of EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, DOL Secretary Thomas Perez, DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx, and under the leadership of a specially appointed senior White House point person. The report, entitled Barack Obama's Path to Progress in 2015-16: Thirteen Essential Regulatory Actions, explains how President Obama could save tens of thousands of lives lost annually as a result of harmful air pollution, avoid crippling diseases from asthma to severe food poisoning, protect children as young as twelve from tobacco poisoning, clear the lungs of hundreds of thousands of workers who needlessly inhale sharp particles of silica dust, and restore America's great waters now plagued by ruinous dead zones.
The climate change initiative is crucial. But it is not the only action the President should complete. If he delivers less than he can so easily accomplish, he could be known as the President who spent eight years in office without adopting a single new worker health rule. He could be seen as the President who shares the blame with House Republicans for failing to deliver on the promise of modernizing the food safety system. And, while several victory laps will be appropriate if the climate rules get done on time (it's not clear that they will), EPA will have accomplished far less than it could and should to address more traditional pollution.
All of the 13 candidates for action have been studied, critiqued, and analyzed, and all are ripe for executive action. But because the President has to this point limited his must-do health and safety agenda to climate change, major progress in other areas has stalled or slowed to a crawl. It's not entirely clear whether this regulatory slow walk is a function of Administration paranoia about the merciless, 24/7 strafing inflicted on each proposal by special interest groups or whether the agency heads have received some negative message from the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA).
As we've said many times before, though, the President's sensitivity to his critics' attacks only ensures that they increase, with no political benefit for the President or his party, and to the disadvantage of his core constituencies, from workers to children of color, to the elderly, and to the millions who suffer from respiratory disease, to people who fish and boat, to migrant workers and the additional millions sickened by Salmonella, Campylobacter, and Listeria.
One historical legacy that congressional critics are fighting hard to impose on the President is that government doesn't work and, to paraphrase the inveterate Grover Norquist, must be whittled down to the size that will enable it to be drowned in the bathtub. But that's the opposite of the message that the American people are sending Washington, D.C. as they become ever more furious about government failures and dysfunction. The Ebola crisis is a classic example: People don't want the Centers for Disease Control to be put out of existence. They want it to be bigger, faster, and more effective. Even the relentless budget cutters on Capitol Hill wonder, albeit with stunning hypocrisy, why this gold standard of a public health operation, can't get on top of the Ebola threat.
The President has spent far too much of his time in office standing by mutely, with his hands in his pockets, absorbing this punishment for reasons that are as mysterious as they are ill-advised. With two years left, he needs to take the gloves off, and show the American people why they need government to protect them from harm they cannot avoid on their own, and, as important, what government can do.